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COVID-19 / Faith

Perpetual Long Division

Perpetual Long Division

If you were gripped with fear when you read that title, don’t worry. We won’t be talking about mathematics here. 

Rather, a different kind of division is our concern. Social division.

Just last week I saw a Twitter post from a person I really respect. He is the editor of a reputable Christian magazine and has a significant following. I’ve never agreed with him on everything. But he often has helpful insights and I appreciate his magazine. 

His post made me cringe with embarrassment. How can I associate with a person who thinks like this? And then it made me mad. These sorts of posts are the reasons that people don’t take us seriously, and even more, the reasons why we are accused of hypocrisy and judgementalism. In just a few words, he demonstrated the very kind of social division that I’m talking about. 

In the 1860s, our society was well-divided over a significant issue—the abolition of slavery. It led to the Civil War, pitting virtually half of the country against the other half. That’s an extreme example of social division. 

One hundred years later, we can see social division of a similar sort still at work. In the 1960s, various civil rights issues divided the public, but not in such a disastrous fashion as to lead once again to civil war. From a historical perspective, some advances were made to heal those rifts. Yet, we are all well aware that some matters from that time continue to fester.

Judging from the recent number of books, articles and other commentary on the topic of social division, one might reckon that it’s presently worse than ever. We regularly see the word “polarization” invoked as if we’re radically divided and our society is falling apart. But if we consider the Civil War as a standard, things are clearly not that bad.

Perhaps what makes us feel particularly divided at the moment is just how much more aware we seem to be about the various vehement disagreements that cause social division. These phenomena garner easy attention across a variety of media. Some even claim that virtual environments like Twitter are toxic because of the intensity and prevalence of viciousness and vitriol exhibited between users of the platform. The post I read on Twitter was filled with the kind of anger that the platform easily turns into a contagion. 

Our attention is drawn to what appears to be the ongoing fragmentation of our society into smaller and smaller groups, often referred to as “tribes,” whose very existence is in part understood through the lens of enmity. To have an enemy is, oddly, a unifying experience. 

Think of it this way: My tribe and your tribe disagree at a fundamental level and maintain an ongoing banter of criticism, castigation, and shame. In fact, these efforts sustain our existence as tribes, giving each a sense of identity. This trickles down to the tribe’s “members.” My participation in the tribe helps me know who I am, what I’m for, what I’m against, and feeds my need for a sense of community. My tribe helps me feel like I’m part of something. “We” have united against “them.”

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that we derive a sense of “righteousness” from our membership in a tribe. For example, your tribe’s cause may offer the feeling that you are on the “right” side of history. Those who don’t agree with you are considered evil, sick, maybe even something less than human. For the sake of achieving righteousness and justice, perhaps your tribe comes up with arguments to commit violence against those who disagree. Or seek to eradicate them altogether. 

Humans tell stories to themselves about themselves. It helps us understand who we are. Tribes do something similar. They often have a story about a kind of loss or damage to something they believe is sacred. The late 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called this ressentiment, borrowing a French term that includes what we mean by “resentment” in English, but also includes a sense of loss, a claim of damage, along with anger and rage. Tribes feel ressentiment. For example, the two most visible tribes we can point to in American culture are the right and left (or conservatives and progressives, respectively). Each tells a story about harm to America, blaming the other tribe for that harm. Both see themselves as victims and the fault belongs to the other group. 

While the specific harms always vary, each tribe goes on to develop a plan of action to address their unique problem. That action plan involves, at least in part, efforts to leverage all available mechanisms of power to advance their cause. The mechanisms might include politics or litigation using rhetoric and arguments. Or they might include shaming and defamation using various kinds of media. Tribes try to prevent or subvert the efforts of other tribes. 

In our present moment of pandemic, we see these sorts of behaviors generated by the loudest disagreements that are getting public attention. Do we stay locked down or reopen? Do we surrender some of our freedoms and privacy for the sake of contact tracing? Should we wear masks, or is this a violation of personal autonomy? These and other concerns generate arguments that devolve into shouting matches, and worse, contempt for the other.

Let it be said for the record that no one is innocent when it comes to social division. Whether we actively participate in the arguments or not, all of us have moments when we simply don’t understand another’s perspective to the extent that we are willing easily to dismiss them right along with their perspective. 

And writing as a Christian, I must admit that I too am guilty of this at times. It’s easy to do because thinking is hard. Conversations that might achieve mutually beneficial goals, probably deriving from some kind of compromise, are harder still. I’m guilty of taking the easy route—thinking poorly of others and better about myself. This move is the exact opposite of what Christians are called to do: Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself (Phil. 2.3). Contempt of others can certainly make us feelgood as well as righteous, but in the end neither is good nor helpful.

What could be a better way? The Bible offers an image that may help.

From the very beginning, the Bible teaches that all humans are made in the image of God. This means there is something we all have in common, something that is the same about all of us. And this sameness transcends our differences. That is, as a first priority, we ought to see each other through the lens of this sameness. Whatever differences we have are contingent, and thus secondary. 

I had to check myself the next day after I read that post on Twitter. It had stuck with me. I was still angry, embarrassed, and frankly, disgusted. And judging by the comments, so were a lot of other people. I could have joined in the reactionary attack. Twitter makes it easy.  But I don’t know the guy personally. He’s probably as well intentioned as many other people whom I’ve disagreed with, including people I love, like my parents, friends, and even my wife. Because I can easily see the image of God in them, it causes me to treat them differently, allowing our differences to be secondary. Thinking about this, I realized that I shouldn’t have been so judgmental about the person who was posting something I disagreed with on Twitter. 

Some consequences flow from the fact that humans are made in the image of God that we can articulate in the form of guiding principles aimed at healing our social division. We can each apply them in our own lives.

First, it is a category mistake to equate people with their ideas. That guy on Twitter said something I disagreed with, but I had to remember: People are NOT the positions they support, the ethics they practice, the religion they belong to (or don’t), or the politics they adhere to. These things are contingent, and throughout a person’s life, they may change. If people have something fundamental in common—that we are created in the image of God—then we are able always to discuss, debate, and critique ideas, perspectives, and convictions, all while seeking vigorously to avoid making ultimate judgments about the person. After all, who are we do say that we are ultimately right, and therefore righteous, while others are evil or sick? How can have certainty about these ultimate judgments?

This leads to a second principle. If we cannot have certainty, we need to practice a kind of “epistemic humility.”Perhaps this is especially important in a time of pandemic. That is, if we know anything at all, we know that we don’t know everything. I’m certainly not right about everything, and I don’t think that guy on Twitter was right either. As humans, there are limits to our knowledge. Furthermore, we are well aware that certainty about almost everything is inaccessible. New information and new experiences change our perspectives all the time. None of us can see with a “God’s-eye-view.” We are fallible, prone to mistakes, bias, and over-confidence. Our claims concerning what we believe is right ought to be supported with the best information we have. And we should exhibit a proper confidence about our convictions, yet one that retains an openness to further conversation, learning, and even being questioned, such that we may learn we are at times, wrong. 

To get at our next two principles, we should take a step back from experiences we have with other people who have different perspectives and consider our own reactions when we run into disagreement. As we noted above, our participation in tribes unites us against common enemies. Yet, considering our human sameness means we need to rethink what it means to have an enemy. In fact, Jesus teaches that we should “love our enemies” (Matthew 5.44). Instead of being against, we are called, in an odd and nearly impossible way, to be for our enemies. In light of the earlier example from the beginning of the Bible, Jesus is at least saying here that we ought to love all other humans because they bear the image of God. 

It would be difficult however, to argue that Jesus is saying love, in this sense, equals something like affirmation. That is, the Christian call to love is not necessarily a call to affirm. So we have our third principle: love does not equal affirmation. If people are made in the image of God, that doesn’t mean I have to agree with or affirm everyone’s ideas on Twitter (or elsewhere). 

Affirmation is something we all desire. I think this is part of the reason we post things on social media platforms like Twitter and others. But there are very good reasons why we should not always receive affirmation. Parents and children know this well. There are behaviors and ideas that my parents did not affirm, like lying or disrespect or the belief that I should always get what I want. But this did not mean they did not love me. 

If (and when) we are wrong, it may actually be a loving gesture when someone disagrees with us in an effort to help us gain a better understanding. So, love does not equal affirmation. It is another category mistake to expect complete affirmation from people who love us. We should embrace this understanding in order to chasten our expectations when interacting with others who share different perspective.

As a corollary, we should also embrace the principle that disagreement does not equal hate. From a biblical perspective, if Jesus was able to love everyone perfectly (which Christians claim he did), how should we understand his disagreements with others that are recounted in the brief biographies about him in the Bible? Certainly we should not assume that he hated those with whom he disagreed. Rather, he sought to correct them for the sake of their own understanding and flourishing. While I wish Twitter were a place where civil discussion existed, the platform isn’t made for that. While I could have joined in heaping negativity at the guy whose post I disagreed with, that would have served no helpful purpose in achieving a better perspective. People don’t change their minds because of contempt from others. Love, empathy, compassion, and doing the hard work of having difficult discussions is what we should be up to.

These principles are commendable. If our world needs anything right now, it’s for people to find ways to see themselves and others through the lens of sameness rather than difference. Healing social division begins here.

I make this argument as a Christian, using Christian reasoning. But I’m well aware that I and many other Christians have failed in this regard. Call us hypocrites. I’ll own this label until my dying day. 

But that’s why I stick close to Jesus. He continues to prod me—sometimes gently, sometimes in ways that feel chastising—to prioritize others in the way that he prioritizes you and me. You and I are so important to him that he gave his life for us. So how can we let our fallible arguments or the causes of our groups and tribes—even our own need to feel “righteous” or affirmed—become the hill upon which we make our stand? Jesus died upon a hill. But it wasn’t just for you or for me. And it definitely wasn’t because we are righteous. Rather, he gave his life because all of us fall short and all of us need his redemption. 

Jesus reveals there is a sameness which unites us with every other human. And he opens a space for us to move forward, no longer in perpetual division but together in love. Let’s walk with him.

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Dr. Chad Lakies is Regional Director of North America at Lutheran Hour Ministries in St. Louis, MO. He’s into coffee, beer, drumming, video games, and buying more books than he has time to read.

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